Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

Book Review of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you may remember a post I did at the end of last year about the murder of Sitting Bull, the chief of the Lakota nation who fought for the rights of Native Americans and their way of life. This is a cause very close to my heart and I have much respect for Sitting Bull and the Native American way of life in general. This post is something a bit different as I’ll be reviewing a book I asked for at Christmas, written by a descendant of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe. I decided to do a book review because I feel the message of the book is a particularly important one and needs to be shared with others.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

Ernie LaPointe, the author of Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy, is a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, and just like his ancestor, is an advocate of the traditional way of life of the Lakota and seeks to tell the truth of the life of the famous chief. I believe this book manages to successfully do both of these things as Sitting Bull’s life is retold in the oral tradition, almost like a story, rather than chronologically. This made it a very easy read and contributed to me not wanting to put the book down.

For me, I have never been so emotionally connected to a book in a very long time. The early parts of Sitting Bull’s life are told in a way which reflects the characteristics highly prized by the Lakota: honour, respect, humbleness and compassion. All of these traits are something I have always associated with Sitting Bull, so I especially liked learning the circumstances he showed these from an early age. The great chief showed these despite the hard times, including the loss of many loved ones, which I find utter commendable.

If you are looking for more information on Sitting Bull’s time in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, you’ll probably be disappointed as this only grants a couple of paragraphs. Personally, I don’t feel that is a problem as the sole purpose of the book is to show the character of Sitting Bull, which of course is not defined by his time in the Wild West Show, but more in the personal moments, of which the book is full of.

The book contains quite a few appendices that may put people off, but I found that these helped explain the animosity that has arisen from the descendants of One Bull, the nephew who was part of the Indian Police who arrested and killed Sitting Bull in 1890, against the direct descendants of Sitting Bull through his children. Perhaps the most useful of these is a glossary explaining the many many Lakota words found in the text. I did quite enjoy learning these words, although I’m pretty sure my pronunciation is terrible.

All in all, I found this a very enjoyable and educational book. It helps to demyth some of the life of Sitting Bull that has been given to us by white historians, rather than through the Lakota oral tradition. This is partly because one of the early historians never visited the children of Sitting Bull, despite the fact they were all present at the time of his murder. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Sitting Bull, or the way of life of the Native Americans. After reading this, I now have a newfound respect for the chief, even more than I already had. I hope that if you read it too, you would feel the same.

To read more on the murder of Sitting Bull, please have a read of my post on the subject using the following link.